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Saanich schools save big with diskless computers

Jay Armstrong and Gregg Ferrie have implemented "slim client" computer technology throughout schools in Saanich.

School district avoids 75% of electricity costs with switch to thin client technology*

Be honest: a lot of us reading this story are too old to have had computers in our classrooms as a kid. But things have changed — a lot. Now, schools scramble to make sure kids can spend time on a computer. They're part of basic education.

This means schools are using far more electricity, software, and spending more on information technology staff, than they used to.

"We've got 14 schools right now, and 2,700 computer stations," says Gregg Ferrie, director of information technology for the Saanich School District.

Across the district, computers used to account for nearly 20% of all electricity use. But since they've pioneered a new approach to offering computers in classrooms, they've cut computer energy use by more than 75%, avoiding costs in excess of 100,000 per year on electricity.

Note that energy savings and costs avoided can vary due to old computer wattage and rate changes. But based on the use of open-source distribution operating systems, the Saanich district believs their system could save millions if adopted across the province, or in any larger office setting.

Diskless (slim client) computer network

"There are typically two different ways of running computers in a big organization," says Ferrie.

The traditional way is with PCs — desktop computers — connected to a server somewhere. Your PC has an operating system on it, usually Windows, and most of your applications are on the desktop. That's the model that's used pretty much everywhere.

The other model is something called "thin client" technology. The server does all the work on the thin client model; it's centrally managed."

Because the desktop-based model offered better speed, superior graphics, and more software options, it has taken precedence. But it has serious drawbacks.

"It takes a ton of time and energy to maintain, because you have to maintain each computer individually," says Ferrie. "They're a single point of failure. Someone has to touch them all the time, adding software, updating security patches, that kind of thing."

Across the school system, Ferrie says that has meant rising costs, especially since schools often receive hand-me-down PCs that need continuous maintenance to keep running. But in the past, thin client systems couldn't offer the software and graphics options needed in schools (or, in most workplaces).

So, since 2008, the Saanich school IT department has developed, tested, and implemented, something it calls a "diskless" (or "slim client") system.

Within classrooms, simple diskless computers offer quality open-source user interfaces — but the system is managed and operated from a central point. Distributed processing means some functions are carried out on the local terminal and others are backed up with more processing power from the server.

Printing is less expensive, and licensing costs have been reduced by choosing open source software. But the two key resource savings are staff time, and electricity.

Big savings

"Before, if a computer physically broke, or if the operating system needed patching, somebody had to physically go out," says Ferrie. "Now the local computers have become appliances. If a diskless client physically breaks it can just be swapped out. The people who are maintaining it at the board office don't need to go to the site to do anything with it."

With 2,200 diskless stations across 14 schools, that has made a huge difference. Another 500 computers can still run Windows if needed, but are frequently dual-booted into the open source Ubuntu platform anyway. Updating software — an on-location job that used to take several days at a 300-computer high school — is now done centrally in less than an hour.

Ferrie says the District has proportionately fewer IT staff than others, and they're predominantly allocated to developing the system, instead of continual maintenance. "We're focusing on improving the system rather than on just maintaining a broken system," he says.

Then there's the electricity. "Originally, we estimated we'd see a 75% cut in computer electricity. Now, we expect we'll see more like 85%," says Jay Armstrong, the energy manager and sustainability leader for the District. "With current and planned tweaks to the system (such as centralized controls that shut down computers when not in use), I'm showing a total savings estimate of 1.25 GWh (gigawatt hours). We only use about 6.5 GWh of electricity total so that's sizable."

Even with a 75% adoption rate of the approximately 154,000 computers in grades K-to-12 across B.C., Armstrong estimates the provincial school system could save a whopping $3-5 million per year in electricity charges alone by implementing the diskless slim client system — reducing energy use by about 40 GWh (enough to power 3,500 homes each year). If a sizable portion of other public sectors in B.C. were to adopt such an open-source system, the electricity savings alone would be massive.

With additional savings on maintenance, licensing fees, and reduced printing costs, the potential cost reduction is even greater. Plus, Armstrong points out that diskless clients produce less heat and noise, requiring less energy for cooling computer labs, as well as building a better learning environment.

Ferrie and Armstrong say the system has been well received in the classroom. Teachers are pleased to have up-to-date hardware despite having to give up some Windows-based software. (Where needed, such as in special education classrooms, the IT department and schools still maintain a few alternative workstations.)

Ferrie and Armstrong hope to work with nearby school districts to spread their pilot project further, and test the potential of shared services models between districts. And they're excited about potential next steps.

"Now that we've got the infrastructure in place, we're working on creating web portals for students and staff, creating social networking sites to embrace personalized learning and 21st century learning," says Ferrie. "We can invest a lot more time in that, because we're not spending all of our time maintaining computers."

With today's technology, diskless computers have a significantly longer expected lifespan than desktop PC computers, cutting down on e-waste and replacement costs over time. All of this adds up to a dramatically reduced "total cost of ownership" (TCO), which is key in today's cost constrained and competitive world.

*Energy savings vary on a case-by-case situation depending on equipment baseline data, usage patterns and equipment installed.